The Dumb, Enduring Genius of Adam Sandler’s “The Chanukah Song”
28 years ago, Adam Sandler helped Jewish kids feel seen in the most hilarious way possible.
When the producers of Saturday Night Live decided to commemorate the seventh night of Hanukkah on December 3rd, 1994 by having Adam Sandler sing a sadistically infectious ditty about the Jewish holiday on “Weekend Update” they undoubtedly realized that they had a winner on their hands. The adorable man-child singing a silly song with an irresistible grin while accompanying himself on acoustic guitar was as close as Saturday Night Live had to a sure thing at the time.
Audiences loved Sandler. Guys wanted to drink beer with him. Women found him crush-worthy. Kids related to him. Movies beckoned. It wouldn’t be long until he was one of the biggest movie stars in the world. But there was something special about this particular incarnation of Sandler, the goofy overgrown kid with the guitar cracking up his buddy Norm MacDonald and a studio audience overjoyed to be in the presence of such transcendent silliness.
The very first performance of “The Chanukah Song” was unsurprisingly a rousing success. But no one could have imagined that a silly novelty song that debuted as a “Weekend Update” bit would enjoy such a robust and enduring second life as a bona fide holiday season perennial, the Jewish equivalent of one of those Christmas classics you hear over and over and over again every November and December.
In hindsight it’s easy to see why this silly little song has gone on to have a very big impact, becoming a beloved staple of Jewish culture and Hanukkah celebrations.
Sandler sports a bashful grin throughout the song, chuckling regularly at his own words, which were co-written by Saturday Night Live staff writers Lew Morton and Ian Maxtone-Graham. In this context, Sandler’s joy is both well-earned and infectious. He has always been his own biggest fan but here that’s endearing rather than off-putting.
Sandler’s seeming nervousness is similarly ingratiating. He stumbles and stammers a bit in introducing the song as the product of a childhood feeling left out due to the overwhelming number of Christmas songs and the absence of ditties devoted to Chanukah beyond “Dreidel, Dreidel, Dreidel.”
Underneath the song’s silliness lies a semi-serious purpose: To make Jewish kids like the young Adam Sandler (and the young me) feel seen and understood during a holiday season where it’s easy to feel invisible if you’re not celebrating Christmas or kissing up to Santa Claus.
If you’re Jewish the Christmas season sure can feel like a big, garishly decorated, and wonderfully boozy party that you were purposefully not invited to. So there’s something empowering about the young, good Adam Sandler inviting everyone in the audience to a Hanukkah party whose guest list is at once star-studded and inclusionary. There’s similarly something empowering about Sandler singing, early in the song, “When you feel like the only kid in town without a Christmas tree/Here’s a list of people who are Jewish, just like you and me.”
Of course, only a tiny fraction of the audience for Saturday Night Live were Jewish that night but for four wonderful minutes, everyone was an honorary Jew invited to celebrate our rich tradition of show-business success.
Sandler and his co-writers dreamed up some brilliant and unforgettable rhymes but they also cheat extensively by adding “ahs” to words to almost but not quite create the illusion of rhyming. For example, “David Lee Roth lights the menorah” is followed by “So do Kirk Douglas, James Caan, and the late Dinah Shore-ah.”
That fake rhyme is followed by a real one that speaks to the song’s wonderful cultural specificity when Sandler continues, “Guess who eats together at the Carnegie Deli? Bowser from Sha Na Na and Arthur Fonzarelli.”
The Carnegie Deli is a household name only to Jews but that’s also the song’s stated audience. It celebrates Judaism and the impressive number of Jews who accomplished great things, like when Sandler joyously exclaims, “You don’t need “Deck the Halls” or “Jingle Bell Rock” when you can spin a dreidel with Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock” before going on to clarify that they’re “both Jewish.”
“The Chanukah Song” only sounds random and half-assed, like something Sandler is making up on the spot in a fit of stoned inspiration. There’s actually a lot of craft and artistry in both the song’s construction and execution in addition to Sandler’s signature assortment of silly voices and goofy faces.
“So many Jews are in show-biz/Tom Cruise isn’t but I think his agent is” is not a great line but Sandler sells it and every other with boyish enthusiasm.
“The Chanukah Song” has endured in a manner no one could have foreseen in part because it fills an important role in giving Jewish kids a holiday song of their own.
But it’s also remained culturally relevant because it’s a product of a beloved entertainer’s early golden age before his shtick got old and he began lazily phoning it in. Last but not least, “The Chanukah Song” remains popular because it is a damn good song, funny, catchy, and full of turns of phrase and jokes that stick in your mind and interrupt your train of thought at regular intervals.
Sandler being Sandler, he could not resist endlessly revisiting and recycling an early triumph. The song became a beloved staple of Sandler’s live performances, was released as a single but only made it to 80 on the pop charts, spawned a series of sequels and follow-ups, and was re-purposed for Sandler’s dreadful animated vehicle Eight Crazy Nights.
But in the rich tradition of holiday hits “The Chanukah Song” remains irresistible. The fact that it’s goofy and simultaneously self-deprecating and celebratory doesn’t make it any less definitive as not just a Chanukah song but the Chanukah song. If anything, the song’s silliness and self-awareness make it even perfect as a timeless, tongue-in-cheek expression of defiant Jewish pride.